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Ivy-Plus Schools could be perpetuating economic inequality

September 21, 2023
By: Jonathan Dillon

Less than half of one percent of Americans attend Ivy-Plus colleges, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). Yet these twelve colleges account for more than 10% of Fortune 500 CEOs, a quarter of U.S. Senators, half of all Rhodes scholars, and three-fourths of Supreme Court justices appointed in the last half-century.

With the above information in mind, Raj Chetty, David J. Deming, and John N. Friedman concluded from their research for NBER that the eight Ivy League colleges plus Chicago, Duke, MIT, and Stanford could diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of America’s leaders by changing pieces of their admissions practices. They shared their conclusions in a July 2023 study that found that highly selective private colleges currently amplify the persistence of privilege across generations.

The authors strove to answer these main questions throughout their study: Do highly selective private colleges amplify the persistence of privilege across generations by taking students from high-income families and helping them obtain high-status, high-paying leadership positions? Conversely, to what extent could such colleges diversify the socioeconomic backgrounds of society’s leaders by changing their admissions policies?

The authors discovered that children from families in the top 1% are more than twice as likely to attend an Ivy-Plus college (Ivy League, Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Chicago) as those from middle-class families with comparable SAT/ACT scores. Two-thirds of this gap is due to higher admissions rates for students with comparable test scores from high-income families. To understand why admission differed so much by parental income, the researchers analyzed the process at the individual level using admissions records. They used their findings, along with earlier research that they conducted, to build their data.

The biggest percentage (46%) of the admissions advantage comes from preferential admission for students whose parents attended the same college, known as legacy students. Legacy students from families in the top 1% are five times as likely to be admitted as the average applicant with similar test scores, demographic characteristics, and admissions office ratings; legacy students from families below the 90th percentile are three times as likely to be admitted as peers with comparable credentials.

The second largest advantage (30%) in admissions for students is from families in the top 1%. The researchers say the candidates are judged to have stronger non-academic credentials, such as extracurricular activities and leadership traits than students from lower-income families. Students from the top 1%, who usually attend private, non-religious schools, are also more likely to obtain higher ratings on the strength of their teacher recommendation and guidance counselor letters compared to public school students. These two factors significantly contribute to non-academic ratings – suggesting that high schools may play a key role in explaining why students from high-income families have higher non-academic ratings. In fact, the share of students receiving high non-academic ratings rises from 15% to nearly 40% going from public schools to non-religious private institutions.

Twenty-four percent of the admissions advantage for students from top 1% families can be explained by the recruitment of athletes. The share of recruited athletes rises from just 5% for students from the bottom 60% of the parental income distribution to more than 13% for students from the top 1%.

The authors answered their two main questions using a new anonymized panel dataset that links several sources of administrative data. Researchers obtained data on 1) information from parents’ and students’ federal income tax records; 2) college attendance information from the Department of Education; 3) data from the College Board and ACT on standardized test scores; and 4) application and admissions records from several highly selective public and private colleges covering 2.4 million students.

The authors concluded that the effect of attendance at Ivy-Plus schools proved to be instrumental in influencing the trajectory of one’s income and career. They found that the marginal student who attends an Ivy-Plus college instead of the average highly selective public flagship is about 60% more likely to reach the top 1% of the income distribution at age 33, nearly twice as likely to attend a highly ranked graduate school, and three times as likely to work at a prestigious firm.

The authors’ findings indicate that revisiting three key aspects of the admissions process – preferences given to children of alumni, to students from certain high schools that produce strong non-academic credentials, and to recruited athletes – could significantly increase socioeconomic diversity.

inequality, higher ed